Peter Forster and Alfred Toth, two geneticists who know nothing about linguistics, have written a paper, “Toward a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic, and Indo-European,” that purports to redraw the family tree of Indo-European, regroup the Celtic languages, and establish far earlier dates for the break-up of PIE and the split of Insular from Continental Celtic. Fortunately, the world will not have to rewrite its textbooks; Larry Trask has done such a thorough job of trashing their methods in LINGUIST List that if there is any justice the names of the perpetrators will never be heard of again outside their specialty. A sample:
What they do is to appeal to an unexplained and wholly subjective
notion of “similarity”. Two items are assigned to the same state if the authors judge them to be similar, but to different states if the authors judge them to be dissimilar. Let’s see what that means in practice.
Latin filia ‘daughter’ and its Spanish descendant hija are assigned to different states, because the authors judge tham to be dissimilar. But the Gaulish inflected form teuo– ‘to gods’ and the Scottish Gaelic prepositional phrase do dhiadhan are assigned to the same state, because the authors judge them to be similar. Why are they similar?
Breton forn ‘oven’ is assigned to the same state as Spanish horno, but to a different state from Irish sorn. Italian e ‘and’ is assigned to a different state from its Spanish cognate y, but to the same state as the unrelated Basque
. (Spanish y has a positional variant e, but apparently that doesn’t matter.) On the other hand, the Gaulish genitive suffix -i is assigned to the same state as Greek –ou. So, /i/ resembles /u/ but not /e/. How do the authors come by these remarkable insights?
Normally, an overt suffix is counted as different from zero suffix. However, Latin feminine –a is assigned to the same state as French e, even though in Parisian French that orthographic -e is purely decorative, and the suffix is zero.
I could go on in this vein, but you get the idea. There is no rhyme or reason in the assignment of states, and the authors’ procedure is as capricious as it is unexplained.
At this point, the work under discussion abandons the discipline of linguistics altogether, and in fact it ceases to be anything recognizable as serious scholarship. Linguistics cannot be done in terms of subjective notions of similarity. This is the kind of sludge we see in those lurid articles claiming to have reconstructed “Proto-World”, and in those delightful Websites announcing “Latvian—the key to all languages”.
Via Mark Liberman of Language Log, who also links to a credulous review in American Scientist Online which he deconstructs himself. And I should add that the NY Times fell for this nonsense back in July, which is what alerted the LINGUIST List folks to it.